Excerpt: Death on Beacon Hill
Book 3: Nell Sweeney Mysteries
Book Three in The Nell Sweeney Mystery Series
June 1869: Boston
The first thing that struck Nell Sweeney about that morning’s Daily Advertiser, even before the front page headline in inch-high type, was the illustration that accompanied it. It was a portrait in three-quarter profile, deftly inked, of a lady of dark and arresting beauty: feral eyes, audacious cheekbones, rouged lips parted to bare the edges of her teeth. Diamonds encircled her throat and her great, gleaming torrent of loose hair. She gripped a dagger the size of a butcher knife with both hands.
The caption read The Late Mrs. Kimball as Lady Macbeth.
Late? Taking a seat at the kitchen table–a slab of age-scarred pine that could seat all twenty of the Hewitt family’s servants at once, when required–Nell set down her coffee cup and unfolded the newspaper.
FOUL MURDER ON BEACON HILL
‘Life’s Drama’ Draws to a Tragic Close
Mrs. Virginia Kimball
Actress Found Shot to Death in Her Home
A Thrill of Horror Runs Through Boston
“You reading about that actress that got killed?” Peter, one of the Hewitts’ two young blue-liveried footmen, looked up from across the table, where he was working his way through a breakfast of cold ham, creamed chicken hash, and scones.
Nell held a finger to her lips and shot a glance toward the huge cookstove across the room, where little Gracie Hewitt stood on a stepstool to stir a pot of porridge under the supervision of Mrs. Waters, her Nana’s cook. The old bird had pitched a fit the first time Nell brought the child down to the kitchen before dawn to see how the breakfasts delivered to her nursery every morning were actually prepared. Family members didn’t mix with the household staff, and they certainly didn’t partake in household chores. It was only when Viola Hewitt herself intervened, decreeing that Gracie should be taught whatever Nell, as her nursery governess, deemed appropriate, that Mrs. Waters had grudgingly relented.
“That child is having far too much fun to pay us any mind.” Peter nodded toward the picture of Virginia Kimball. “You ever see her onstage?”
Nell shook her head as she contemplated the little line drawing. “I think she’s…I think she was retired.”
“I saw her in Romeo and Juliet when I was just a kid–not a regular performance, just a rehearsal, but they were wearing their costumes. Me and my cousin Liam, we sneaked into the Boston Theatre one afternoon and hid up in the dress circle, just to catch a glimpse of her in the flesh. We used to see her picture on playbills and the like. She was even more beautiful in person, if you can believe it, and she wasn’t any young chickabiddy back then. She must have been… Let’s see, this was the summer I turned eleven, so it was back in fifty-six, and the paper said she was forty-eight when she died, so…” His brow furrowed as he chewed over the math.
“She would have been thirty-five.” The artist who’d drawn Mrs. Kimball had captured a snap of electricity in her eyes…half madwoman, half seductress.
“About halfway through the rehearsal,” Peter continued, “I saw a little flicker of light in one of the boxes, like a match being struck. They’ve got these real fancy boxes with red velvet curtains, three levels of them, right there on the front part of the stage.”
“Proscenium boxes,” Nell said. They were the most luxurious boxes in the largest and most opulent theater in the city–maybe in the whole country. The top box on stage right was under subscription by the Hewitts.
“He’d lit a cigarette, the fella sitting in the box,” Peter said. “It was dark in there, but I could see his face every time he took a puff.” He grinned as he dunked a chunk of scone into his milky tea, a great shock of sandy hair falling into his eyes. “You’ll never guess who it was.”
“William Hewitt,” Nell said.
Peter looked up at her. “How’d you know?”
“Someone once told me Will had had a–“
“‘Will,’ is it?” Peter asked with a quizzical little quirk of his eyebrows.
“‘Dr. Hewitt,’ I meant. His mother calls him Will, so…” Nell hoped the warmth rising up her throat wouldn’t ignite into one of those scalding, tell-tale blushes, the bane of her existence. Thankfully, Peter was one of the few Hewitt retainers who actually considered her a friend; she mustn’t let herself slip like that in front of the others.
She said, “Someone once told me that Dr. Hewitt had had a brief…flirtation with Mrs. Kimball.” The eldest of the Hewitts’ four sons, Will had indulged in a weakness for actresses during his visits home from England, where he’d been brought up and educated.
Peter chuckled as he cut a stack of ham slices into a pile of bite-sized pieces. “Looked like more than a ‘flirtation’ to me–on his part, at least. Looked to me like he was smitten but good. He had a bunch of white roses on the seat next to him–biggest bouquet I ever saw, just this mountain of flowers. And the look on his face while he watched her down there on that stage–you could tell he had it bad.”
“You knew who he was?” Nell asked. “You were just a boy. This was long before you came to work for the Hewitts, and back before the war, Dr. Hewitt only spent a few weeks out of every year in Boston. There were acquaintances of his parents who didn’t even know he existed.” Bizarre, considering the family’s position in Boston society, but Will had always nurtured a contempt for that world, and avoided it during his school holidays. And, too, he’d been at odds with the family patriarch, the venerable August Hewitt, since early childhood–hence his exile to England, where relatives had shunted the young firebrand from boarding school to boarding school, and finally to Oxford. It wasn’t until he took his fate in his own hands, defying his father to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh, that he began to feel as if he had a place in the world, a role, a purpose. Then came the war, and all that changed.
“Oh, I didn’t recognize him at the time,” Peter said, “but he stuck in my memory, what with that shiny black hair and those fine clothes, and…I don’t know. He had an air about him, the air of an older gentleman, a gentleman of the world, even though he couldn’t have been much more than” -Peter shrugged as he forked up some hash– “mid twenties?”
“He would have been twenty-one.”
“I remember thinking he looked like a young prince, except for the cigarette. I’d only ever seen ruffians and laborers smoke them–men like my pa and his mates. So, between his looks and the cigarette–oh, and that limey accent–I didn’t have any trouble recognizing him when I came to work here a few years later, even with him in his uniform.”
Will had returned to the states when war was declared to offer his medical services to the Union Army. Of the other three Hewitt sons, the next eldest, Robbie, was the only one to volunteer. Harry, the third son and as selfish a lout as ever drew a breath, had made excuses to stay home, and Martin was simply too young.
Viola Hewitt had once shown Nell a photograph taken of her two eldest sons after their enlistment in the Fortieth Massachusetts Mounted Infantry. Will and Robbie had struck dashing figures in their blue, brass-buttoned frock coats and slouch hats–especially the tall, angular Will, who wore an officer’s saber belted over a maroon sash, his status as a battle surgeon having earned him the rank of major. Robbie, who’d mustered in as a sergeant, had achieved a captaincy by February of ’64, when both brothers were captured at the Battle of Olustee and condemned to the Confederacy’s notorious Andersonville prison camp–a hell on earth that claimed Robbie’s life and left Will grievously wounded, both in body and in soul.
“Miseeney, look!” Gracie clambered down from her stool with a bowl in her chubby little hands, feet tangling in her adult-sized apron as she scurried across the room. “I made it. It has waisins and honey in it. Twy it!”
Nell ate the offered spoonful with a great show of relish. “Oh, that’s really good, sweetie. That’s some of the best porridge I’ve ever had. You’re turning into quite the cook.” She reinforced the compliment with a hug, whereupon the child returned to her stool and Nell to her conversation.
“You noticed Dr. Hewitt’s accent?” she said. “Did he speak to you?”
Peter shook his head as he chewed. “Not to me–to her, after the rehearsal was over and they were practicing their curtain calls. He stood up and applauded and called out to her. ‘Brava, Mrs. Kimball, well done,’ something like that. Then he tossed the flowers down, and they landed right at her feet. I thought she’d pick them up, but she just smiled and said, ‘I prefer orchids, Doc. A clever boy like you might have found that out.'”
Nell winced, recalling what she’d been told about Will’s futile pursuit of Virginia Kimball–how there was an Italian count who’d bought her a house on Beacon Hill and the skeins of diamond necklaces that were her trademark. That hadn’t stopped her from teasing and tormenting Will until the count was due for a visit, whereupon she’d told the smitten young surgeon to “run off like a good boy and quit pestering me.”
Peter said, “The thing that surprised us, Liam and me, was that she had a little bit of a southern accent. When she was acting, she sounded real, you know, hoity-toity. Almost English, like. Anyway, she just left the roses where they were lying and swept offstage with her costume billowing and folks scrambling after her like a litter of puppies. And I thought, that fella might be a prince, but she’s a queen–and she knows it.”
“Yes, I imagine she did,” Nell murmured as she turned her attention to the newspaper article.
Mrs. Virginia Kimball, First Lady of the Boston Stage, has been wrenched from the world by an act of unspeakable violence. Yesterday at approximately 4 o’clock in the afternoon, Mr. Maximilian Thurston, a playwright of some note in this city, arrived at the Mt. Vernon St. home of Mrs. Kimball, his neighbor and longtime acquaintance, for the pot of tea which it was their daily custom to share at that hour. Upon knocking twice and receiving no answer, Mr. Thurston opened the door and called out, “Virginia! Are you home?” The fretful visitor searched the ground floor of the townhouse, and upon finding no one about, proceeded upstairs, only to encounter a scene of the most gruesome and lamentable nature.
Mrs. Kimball lay in the open doorway of her bedroom, the bodice of her walking dress soaked with blood. On the floor nearby rested a Remington pocket pistol, which Mr. Thurston recognized as belonging to the actress. Although mortally wounded, she yet retained the spark of life, enough so to clasp Mr. Thurston’s hand before expiring in his arms. He was to receive a second shock upon discovering, on the floor at the foot of Mrs. Kimball’s bed, the lifeless body of her young maid, Fiona Gannon, who had been shot in the head.
Already there are many rumors afloat relative to this tragic affair, which is perhaps to be expected, given the notoriety of the deceased and the circumstances of her demise. One such rumor, the veracity of which has yet to be determined, is that Miss Gannon was found clutching a number of her late mistress’s famous diamond necklaces. Parties have been dispatched by the authorities to the scene of the murder, and a coroner’s inquest will be held this afternoon, which will doubtless shed further light upon this sad affair.
Mrs. Kimball had no known next of kin, the details of her life prior to her arrival in this city some twenty years past being shrouded in mystery. For this reason, her personal attorney, Mr. Orville Pratt of Pratt and Thorpe, has taken on the melancholic duty of making his late client’s final arrangements. Mrs. Kimball is to be interred in Roxbury’s Forest Hills Cemetery following private funeral services at the Arlington Street Church tomorrow, the 3rd of June, at ten o’clock in the morning, the Reverend Dr. Ezra Gannett to officiate. It is Mr. Pratt’s intention to mark the grave with a handsome tombstone. He believes Mrs. Kimball to have been 48 years old at the time of her passing, although her precise age, like so many other details of her life, will doubtless remain a matter of speculation for some time.
“They’re burying her tomorrow?” Nell pushed the paper away from her, as if that would make it all less real, less horrible. “A bit hasty, isn’t it?”
“Maybe it’s a Unitarian thing,” Peter said as he wiped up the last of his hash with a chunk of scone. “That’s a Unitarian church they’re holding her funeral at.”
All Nell knew about Unitarianism was that staunchly devout August Hewitt was in the habit of accusing his youngest son, Martin, a Harvard divinity student, of leanings in that direction. So opposed was Mr. Hewitt to any whiff of liberality in his Sunday services that he’d recently severed his relationship with King’s Chapel, which he and Viola had attended for some thirty-two years, in favor of the resolutely Congregationalist Park Street Church. His wife’s continued allegiance to the nominally Episcopalian King’s Chapel, which he considered “secretly Unitarian,” rankled him–it didn’t look right, he said, for a couple of their standing to attend different churches–but Viola Hewitt had always made her own decisions, and that wasn’t about to change any time soon. For Nell, who’d never been able to sort out the differences between the various Protestant denominations, the rift was perplexing at best.
“It just strikes me as a little unseemly to hold a funeral two days after the death,” she said. “There’s hardly any time to notify the people who knew her, let them know what happened and when the funeral will be held so they can pay their last respects.”
A grunt of laughter drew Nell’s attention to the service stairs, which Peter’s fellow footman, the darker, heavier Dennis, was descending. “You really think anyone in this town would want to be seen paying their last respects to the likes of her?”
Following Dennis down the stairs was the parlormaid Mary Agnes Dolan, busily tucking her great froth of red hair–wild as spun copper–into her white ruffled maid’s cap. She and Dennis grabbed plates and set about filling them up at the cookstove.
Peter said, “Hey, Denny, weren’t you finishing up your breakfast when I came down here half an hour ago?”
“I worked up an appetite between then and now.” Dennis caught the eye of Mary Agnes, who smirked and nudged him with her shoulder.
Peter looked at Nell and then quickly lifted his teacup, ears reddening.
Dennis scooped up the newspaper and handed it to Mary Agnes as they sat side-by-side at the other end of the table. “That’s the one I was telling you about,” he said, pointing to the picture of Virginia Kimball as he speared a slice of ham with his knife and lifted it to his mouth.
“What did you mean about people not wanting to be seen at her funeral?” Nell asked.
Dennis chuckled as he tore off half the slice with his teeth. Chewing with a wide-open mouth, he said, “Let’s just say I’ve heard some things that’d make a prissy little miss like you keel over in a dead faint.”
“Rumors,” Peter said.
Dennis rolled his eyes. “She was an actress, Pete. You know as well as I do what that means. A whore’s a whore, and all the diamond necklaces in the world won’t–“
“Watch your mouth in front of the lady,” Peter warned.
Denny said, “The lady shouldn’t ask a question if she can’t handle the answer.”
“You might at least mind what you say in front of Gracie,” Nell said.
“What about me?” Mary Agnes demanded through a mouthful of hash, scowling petulantly when no one responded.
Dennis frowned at Gracie, still stirring her porridge with her back to them, blessedly oblivious to the conversation. “You ask me,” he said, “the little by-blow’s got no business being in this house, much less–“
“Denny!” Peter looked around anxiously. “What are you thinking, man?”
Nell leaned toward Dennis and said, in a voice strained with fury, “If Mrs. Hewitt were to find out what you just called that child, she would sack you on the spot, and without references.” When Viola adopted the newborn Gracie five years ago, she made it clear to her household staff that the child was to be treated exactly as if she’d been born into the family. Any reference to her being the illegitimate child of a former chambermaid would be punished with dismissal.
“You gonna tattle on him?” Mary Agnes sneered.
“I will,” Peter said, “next time it happens–so help me God, I will. You’re pushing your luck, Denny.”
“And you’re wasting your time, Petey-boy, trying to impress that one.” Dennis cocked his head toward Nell. “The likes of us ain’t good enough for the high-reaching Miss Nell Sweeney, never mind we was all spawned out of the same slimy Irish bogs.”
High-reaching. Highfalutin. Lace-curtain. Priggish. Stiff-rumped… Nell had heard them all, and then some.
Being a governess–that is to say, neither servant nor gentlewoman, but that most exotic of species, an independent working woman–was complicated enough, inasmuch as one never quite fit in, either with the household staff or the family. But being a governess who’d sprung from such humble roots, most having been born into the upper classes, meant that not only was she unique, she was uniquely reviled. The rank and file servants–most of them, anyway–resented the special treatment they felt she’d somehow finagled for herself. As for the nobs, well, there were exceptions, like Viola and Will, but the majority neither understood nor trusted her; some, such as August Hewitt and his son Harry, viewed her with outright suspicion, if not loathing.
In the Hewitts’ household–indeed, in their entire world of Brahmin pomp and privilege–there was literally no one quite like Nell, no established niche for her in the caste system, no recognized rules of comportment, no place. On the one hand, it could be, and often was, a somewhat lonely existence. On the other, the lack of ready-made parameters left her free to establish her own, within certain limits–which she’d gotten awfully adept at stretching.
“Denny’s right, Pete. You’re wastin’ your time.” Mary Agnes darted a sly little glance in Nell’s direction. “Her Highness has got her sights set on bigger game than you. You know who she’s been makin’ time with in the Public Garden every afternoon, don’t you?”
Peter came to Nell’s rescue while she was groping for a response. “You shouldn’t be listening to idle talk, Mary Agnes–either of you, whether it’s about Nell or Mrs. Kimball or anyone.”
“Especially Mrs. Kimball,” Nell said. “The lady is dead–murdered, for pity’s sake–and all you can do is gossip about her. Anyone’s death should be greeted with sadness. We all deserve that much.”
“Brady sure seems to think so,” Dennis said with a snicker.
“What do you mean?” Nell asked. Brady, the Hewitts’ driver, had become, during Nell’s five years with the family, almost like a father to her.
Dennis grinned as he stuffed half a scone into his mouth. “He was in here before, when I was having my breakfast–my other breakfast. I was trying to make conversation, but all he wanted to do was read the paper, which is how he is. All of a sudden, his mouth drops open and he kind of…” Dennis gasped and covered his mouth in illustration. “I asked him what was wrong, but he never pays me no mind. He just finished his reading. When he looked up, I swear to God he had tears in his eyes. A grown man–old as my pa, older maybe–and he’s blubbering like a little girl. Never knew he was such a cow-baby.”
“Where is he now?” Nell asked.
Dennis shrugged. “He left right after that. Said he had to go wash the brougham.”
Nell looked from Dennis to Gracie–still stirring away industriously–to Peter. “Peter, do you think you could keep an eye on her for a few minutes while I–“
“Go,” Peter said, shooing her up from the table and out the back door.
Nell stepped outside to find the half-risen sun casting a sanguine luminescence over the backyard. It was a small yard, absurdly so considering the size and grandeur of “Palazzo Hewitt,” as Will had dubbed the Italianate mansion overlooking Boston Common. Viola had planted a charmingly frowsy English-style garden on the tiny patch of land, framed on either side by ivy-covered trellises and in back by a sizable red-roofed Tuscan cottage that served as a carriage house–or, more accurately, a combination stable and carriage house, half the ground floor being fitted out with horse stalls, while the other half housed the Hewitts’ fleet of coaches and buggies. The sprawling second floor provided living quarters for Brady and most of the other male servants.
Nell hesitated before the iron-hinged double carriage door, thinking it was unlike Brady to close it while he was working inside, especially on a mild summer morning like this. She knocked, waited, knocked again. “Brady?”
Once, shortly after she’d first come to work for the Hewitts, Nell had addressed the amiable Irishman as “Mr. Brady.” He’d laughed and said, “It’s just Brady, miss–plain old Brady.” She had no idea whether that was his first or last name. To this day, despite their close friendship, he insisted on addressing Nell as Miss Sweeney in deference to her station within the household.
She creaked the door open and entered the long, stone-walled carriage bay, which was utterly silent save for the rustling of her skirts. It was cool inside, and dim, the windows being few and small. Through the arched doorway to the right came muffled whinnies and the scents of horseflesh and hay. To the left stretched a shadowy double row of vehicles, with a corona of light at the very end. Squinting, Nell made out a lantern hanging from one of the far back rafters.
She walked toward the light, passing Mr. Hewitt’s one-seat bachelor coupe, Viola’s elegant little Victoria, Martin’s Coal Box buggy, the pony wagonette that had been Gracie’s Christmas present from Viola last year, a four-passenger bob sleigh for winter traveling, two nondescript gigs and a cart for the servants’ use, and finally the gem of the collection, the family brougham.
The stately coach shone like black glass through a constellation of droplets, except for the oilcloth-draped driver’s seat. Water dripped from its body and wheels, dissolving into the floor of packed earth; a bucket with a washrag slung over it stood on a bench in the corner. Brady, in shirtsleeves and a damp canvas apron, his back to Nell, stroked a chamois methodically over the vehicle, coaxing it to a high gloss as he dried it off.
Nell was about to say his name again when he stilled and wiped his eyes with his sleeve. Without turning around, said, in a damply gruff, Irish-accented voice, “Go, away, miss. I’m fine.”
“Did you know her?” Nell asked softly.
He expelled a long, tremulous sigh. “She was my niece.”
Stunned, Nell almost said, Virginia Kimball was your niece? when she realized her mistake. “The maid, you mean?” Fiona something…
“Fee Gannon. Fiona, but we called her Fee. My little sister’s girl.” He sniffed, straightened up, and resumed his polishing.
“Oh, Brady, I’m sorry.” She came closer, rested a hand on his broad back.
He just kept on rubbing the chamois over the brougham, taking care to obliterate every trace of moisture from its surface.
Shot in the head… That was bad enough. But Miss Gannon was found clutching a number of her late mistress’s famous diamond necklaces…
“Brady…” she began.
“She didn’t do it.” He met Nell’s gaze over his shoulder, his customary good humor replaced by a rheumy-eyed anguish that made her heart contract in her chest. “She’s a good lass.” He turned back around and continued his work. “Was. She would never… She could never…” He slammed a fist on the side window, muttered something under his breath, and squeaked the chamois over the glass to wipe away the mark. “They got it all wrong. It’s all wrong. They didn’t know her like I did. They don’t know.”
“No you don’t,” Brady said as he spun to face her. It was the first time he’d ever raised his voice to her, and it stabbed something deep inside her, something that made her feel alarmed, uprooted. “You can’t know, because you didn’t know her.” His chin quivered; tears spilled from his eyes. “You didn’t–” The words died on a choking sob. He slumped against the brougham, the chamois fluttering to the floor, his big, work-roughened hands shielding his face.
Nell drew him into her arms, led him to the bench. “Sit. Sit, Brady.”
He was crying in earnest now, amidst muttered imprecations that she couldn’t quite make out. She handed him her handkerchief. He covered his face with it and doubled over, great, hoarse sobs heaving out of him while she patted his back and made comforting noises.
The carriage bay grew brighter during the several minutes it took Brady to pull himself together. Sunlight streamed through the east-facing windows, gleaming off the brougham.
“I’ll have to wash her again,” Brady said in a shaky, sandy-wet voice as he wiped his nose with Nell’s handkerchief. “She’ll have spotted where I didn’t wipe her down.”
“That can wait.” Nell tightened her arm around this man who’d been her bedrock, her salvation, so many times over the past five years. “Are you all right?”
Brady sighed, his elbows resting heavily on his knees. “She was my only kin, Fee was. My only kin over here. The rest of ’em, they’re still in the old country.” He wadded up the sodden handkerchief, dabbed his eyes, then flattened it out, frowning at the elaborately embroidered monogram in the corner. “Oh, look what I’ve done to your pretty handkerchief. I remember when Mrs. Hewitt gave you these.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“I’ll have it cleaned,” he said as he folded it up into a neat square.
“I don’t care about the handkerchief, Brady,” Nell said as she smoothed his disheveled hair. “I care about you. I feel so…” Helpless. Frightened. He was like her father–more of a father, certainly, than her real father had been. He’d always been there for her, rock-solid, cheerful, reliable. Every Sunday morning, before dawn, he drove her up to St. Stephen’s in the North End for early mass. They’d take one of the little gigs so that they could sit next to each other and talk. He’d offer advice, tell her jokes… Sometimes he even sang to her–hymns or drinking songs, depending on his mood. To see him undone like this… It felt as if the very earth were sliding out from beneath her feet.
Nell said, “I remember you mentioning her.” Brady rarely talked about himself, but he’d spoken with affection of “Fee,” for whom he’d found a position in service when she was orphaned in her teens; that would have been a year or two before Nell came to Boston.
“I thought she worked for the Pratts,” Nell said. Orville Pratt, one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Boston, had a law practice with August Hewitt’s closest friend, Leo Thorpe.
Brady nodded. “She started off with them. I got her hired on as a chambermaid when her parents passed on, back in ‘sixty-three. Or rather, Mrs. Hewitt did, as a favor to me. She’s a very great lady, Mrs. Hewitt, with a good heart. You don’t find many like her up in them lofty ranks.”
“That’s for sure.”
Brady drew in a shaky breath and let it out slowly. “Fee never did take to the Pratts. Said they demanded too much of her.”
“In terms of the workload, or…?”
“That, and how they expected her to conduct herself, even on her off hours.”
“There’s nothing unusual about that,” Nell said, “especially for a family as prominent as that one.”
Frowning at the floor, Brady scrubbed a hand over his jaw. “Aye, but it rankled Fee somethin’ fierce. See, my sister and her husband, they had a more or less free and easy way about ’em. Fee didn’t ever really learn to toe the mark. She wasn’t a bad kid, mind you, she just didn’t like havin’ to pretend she was somethin’ she wasn’t.”
Nell nodded noncommittally, all too aware of how it felt to play a role, and chagrined that this man to whom she’d grown so close had no idea who and what she’d really been in her earlier years. The only person who knew everything–the only person in Boston–was Will Hewitt.
“Fee hated service,” Brady said. “She wanted to open a notions shop.”
“Yeah, she was savin’ her money for it–what little she made. They paid her a buck and a half a week. God knows how long it would have taken her, but she was real keen on the idea. She’d always loved…fripperies and trifles and such. Ribbons and laces…gloves, parasols, bonnets… Bonnets, especially, she was forever goin’ on about them. She aimed to sell yard goods, too, I think, and writing paper and the like. Other things. She used to go on and on about it. I can’t remember it all. I reckon I wasn’t really listening, on account of I didn’t think anything would ever come of it.” He closed his eyes, rubbed his face.
“When did she start working for Virginia Kimball?” Nell asked.
Brady turned the damp handkerchief over and over in his hands. “Just three weeks ago. I met her sometimes at Pearson’s on Sunday afternoons for a spot of tea. It was the first Sunday in May that she told me Mrs. Kimball had hired her away from the Pratts.”
“As a chambermaid?” Nell asked.
“A maid of all work. There weren’t no other servants, just her.”
“Yeah, I warned her what she was in for. I said if she thought the Pratts overworked her, just wait till she had to do it all. But she said it was worth it, on account of she’d get to do the work of a lady’s maid, which was good experience for her notions shop, and also ’cause Mrs. Kimball was gonna pay her two dollars a week, so she figured she’d be gettin’ the shop that much sooner. Oh, and she’d get her own bedroom. She’d always hated havin’ to bunk in the Pratts’ attic with all them other girls. I told her it wasn’t worth it in the long run. I begged her to go back to the Pratts, if they’d have her. One of the daughters had helped her get the job with Mrs. Kimball, and–“
“One of the Pratt girls?” Nell asked. “Cecilia?”
“Nah, the other one, the one that spent all that time in Europe.”
“Emily, that’s right. I said maybe Miss Emily could put in a good word with her parents, and if that didn’t work, I’d try to get Mrs. Hewitt to help, but Fee wouldn’t hear of it.” He shook his head, looking weary, grayish.
“It was that important to you?” Nell asked.
“It wasn’t just the work she’d have to do, it was…who she’d be workin’ for.”
“It didn’t sit well with me, Fee associatin’ with that sort. I felt an obligation, don’t you know, to my late sister, to look after Fee and make sure she stayed on the straight and narrow. And now look what’s happened.” His voice started faltering. “She gets a bullet in the–” He pressed the handkerchief to his mouth, his eyes welling. “And they think she…they think she was a thief and a murderess. Forevermore, that’s how she’s gonna be known. Mother of God, how did things ever come to such a pass?”
Banding an arm around Brady, Nell said, “There’s going to be an inquest today. I’m sure, if your niece is innocent of–“
“She is innocent. I told you–she could never have done such a thing.”
“Yes, I know. I misspoke.” Trying, despite her doubts, to sound reassuring, she said, “The inquest jury will sort through the facts, and when they realize it wasn’t an attempted robbery, they’ll clear Fee’s name.”
“It’s already been sullied right there on page one, underneath a headline a blind man could read. How are they ever gonna clear it? And why should they? To them, she was just some no-account Irish serving girl. You know what they think of us. You know the names they call us. We’re vermin to them, foreign riff-raff. It won’t even occur to them to question Fee’s guilt–you mark my words.”
Nell didn’t know how to respond to that, given that he was probably right.
Shaking his head, a truculent thrust to his jaw, Brady said, “In the twenty some odd years I’ve lived in this city, nothing has changed for our kind. Seems like the more of us that come over, the worse it gets for us. The Board of Aldermen, the City Council, the constables, they’re all out to keep us down. Sometimes I wonder why I didn’t just stay in the old country.”
“Because there was nothing to eat,” she reminded him with a gentle pat on the back. “And you’re wrong, actually. There are a few councilmen with Irish names, and at least one police detective that I know of.”
“An Irish copper? Now I’ve heard everything.”
“His name is Colin Cook,” she said. “They hired him to police Fort Hill.”
“Got a mick to keep the other micks in line, eh?”
“Exactly. He’s been promoted, though. He works in the new Detectives’ Bureau at City Hall now. He handles cases all over the city.”
“A detective, no less.” Brady turned toward her, a glimmer in his eye that made him look, for the first time this morning, almost like his old self. “How well do you know this fella?”
“Well enough to consider him a friend.”
“A detective, that’s not like a regular constable. They’re the ones to look into robberies and killings and such.”
“Yes, but Cook is only one of eight or ten detectives in that bureau. I’ll be happy to speak to him for you–I gather that’s what you’re getting at–but he may not know much more than you or I. And there’s no reason to think he could clear your niece’s name.”
“I’ll clear it myself, but first I need to find out what really happened. This Cook, he’ll have to know something.”
Nell offered Brady as reassuring a smile as she could muster up. “I’ll go to City Hall tonight and talk to him.”
Brady’s face fell. “You’ve got to wait till tonight?”
“I’ve got Gracie to take care of. Anyway, Detective Cook isn’t there in the daytime. He works four to midnight.” She patted Brady’s hand. “A few hours won’t make any difference. In the meantime, try not to dwell on it too much.”
He squeezed her hand, his eyes damp. “She looked a little like you. Not quite as pretty, I reckon, but pretty enough, with the same rusty-brown hair. You’re a fine young lady, Miss Sweeney, an angel. You’re doin’ the good Lord’s work, clearin’ my Fee’s name.”
If she could clear it. How would Brady take it, Nell wondered, if it turned out Fiona Gannon was just as guilty as she seemed?